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The cost of climate change on display

Hurricane Harvey just drowned Southeast Texas. The storm gained strength as it crossed the abnormally warm Gulf waters and grew to a Category 4 hurricane. Even after it made landfall and weakened to a tropical storm, Harvey continued to dump record amounts of rain on the region. While climate change is not the root cause of such weather events, it’s important to understand that a warmer atmosphere and warmer ocean amplify such storms.

Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said “the main fuel for the storm” was warm water in the Gulf—as much as 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average. “Although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls” because of those warmer waters, he said.

We all saw news footage of people taking refuge on their rooftops, and dramatic water rescues. In addition to the human costs, the economic costs are staggering: Bloomberg reported that the total costs could mount to $30 billion, when the impacts on the area’s labor, transportation and energy sectors are taken into account. We have to ask ourselves: How many more storms will force us to measure rain in feet, rather than inches? How much more strain can be put on the National Flood Insurance Program—already $24 billion in the red from Hurricane Katrina? How many more people are we willing to displace from their homes, or lose completely in extreme weather events like these?

This all boils down to one question: Will we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with impunity? As long as we do that, we’re signing up for more of the same—and worse.

Events like Harvey, and the ongoing monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, India and Nepal that has displaced millions of people, seem terrible and yet distant. It’s easy to go on with our lives, safe in the knowledge that in Upstate New York, we are far from rising, warming oceans. Maybe gasoline prices will go up, but they will go back down eventually, right? It’s not going to cost me anything. But we’re kidding ourselves if we think that. We have already seen the impact of unusually high rainfall in the Great Lakes basin this spring, and the flooding from Lake Ontario that resulted. The agricultural industry, which is very important to our region, cannot help but think about what the future holds as the climate changes. Even our high tech industries, which are globally connected, have to think about the implications for their business partners, supply chain security and the economy in general.

We need comprehensive legislation to shift the market away from the greenhouse gases causing climate change. Putting a price on carbon is the only legislative move that matches the scale of the problem we face. A national carbon-pricing bill could require fossil fuel companies to pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent emissions. As the price rises each year, and as businesses look after their bottom lines, the market will quickly turn to low- or no-carbon options. If all that revenue were returned equally to American households in the form of a dividend, studies show it would boost the economy, bring millions of jobs and set us on a course to stabilizing our climate.

This type of plan already has major conservative support. The Climate Leadership Council, led by Republican statesmen James Baker, Henry Paulson, George Shultz and others, released “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” earlier this year. Republicans currently in Congress are taking note of the need for climate action, too. Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo saw Miami flooding and heard his constituents demand action, so he responded by forming the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus with Florida Democrat Rep. Ted Deutch. The Caucus now has 26 Republicans and 26 Democrats working together, many of whom have seen climate impacts in their own districts and are ready to get serious about climate action.

We need to ask our local congressional representatives to join this bipartisan effort. We will get action, but only if we demand it. Businesses, universities, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, and many others need to speak up. The cost of action now is much, much lower than the costs that inaction will lead to in the future.

Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizen’s Climate Lobby. Paul Kane is a member of the Rochester Chapter of Citizen’s Climate Lobby.

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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